Les MisérablesPicture the scene. Two men in an abandoned warehouse, guns drawn, each aiming for the other one’s head. Ominous music underlies the scene. One man is calm. The other is obviously nervous. A bead of sweat forms then quickly scurries down the latter’s temple. You can sense, just by looking at him that he wants to swallow a mouthful of saliva. He needs to swallow a mouthful of saliva. But he can’t. The stand off holds for seconds but it feels like a minute. Something, anything, surely has to give. It’s coming. The music swells then stops and then … they start singing.

See, this is the problem I have with musicals. Suspension of disbelief isn’t enough. Disbelief has to be further suspended. Perhaps with some invisible wire. Or a sophisticated airflow. Because otherwise, there’s no earthly reason why people would sing while in the situations they find themselves. Or if they do sing, there’s no earthly reason why everyone else in the scene should know the words.

It’s safe to say, then, that I went to see Les Misérables with fairly low expectations.

For those who have managed to avoid the Victor Hugo novel or the West End / Broadway adaptation that’s been doing the rounds for the last quarter century, set in revolutionary France, it tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), released on parole after 19 years on the chain gang, striving to turn his life around despite the attentions of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) who is hell bent to send him back to prison or kill him. After becoming something of a successful businessman, Valjean meets Fantine (Anne Hathaway), struggling to support her illegitimate daughter by selling her body in every conceivable manner. After a fashion, Valjean becomes responsible for the raising of the child.

It’s a storyline that has a typically epic, overblown feel to it, but from the first scene, it’s a visually stunning piece of cinema. Without the  constraints of the stage, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) opens the work up, lets it breathe and throws in a sprinkling of CGI wherever it seems merited. Contrasts between wide and close shots have the desired effect and it probably took five minutes before I realized that everyone was singing.

So storywise, it’s fine. And even the singing is forgivable for the most part. There is a problem that there are only a few really, really well known songs in the production and there does seem to be an awful lot of singing words in a monotone fashion when simply speaking them would work arguably better but the big ticket items certainly deliver. Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-worthy delivery of I Dreamed A Dream is spellbinding; all the more so for being done in a single take, close focused and brimming with enough emotion to make your goosebumps get goosebumps. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Master of the House delivered by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen is a big, overdone production that works brilliantly as an ensemble piece.

Despite my initial concerns, then, for the most part it’s a very impressive experience with a couple of antipodean reservations.

While Hugh Jackman is a great presence, his vibrato becomes tiresome after a while and he struggles a little in the higher register. However. More worryingly, his countryman, Russell Crowe, is awful. Truly diabolical. He can’t sing and in a musical, that’s going to present a problem or two. He growls his way through most of the lyrics and, in a cast that seems infinitely more comfortable with the task in hand, he has the appearance of the kid in the nativity play who knows all the words but none of the meaning. He focuses so much on giving us something resembling a tune and hiding his accent that he forgets that he’s also supposed to act.

My final grumble is why, despite the obvious French leanings, does all the supporting cast have to be under the impression that they’re in Oliver? Seriously, I had no idea that so many Cockneys played a part in the French Revolution.

These complaints aside, this is a strangely entertaining movie, much in the same way that Black Swan kept my attention despite my lack of interest for the medium. Give it a shot. If you don’t walk out whistling Do You Hear The People Sing then The Marseillaise probably won’t be far from your lips. It may be a while before you want to think of Waltzing Matilda.

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